Time of the Wolf (Le temps du loup) (2003)

Time of the Wolf first published, in a version here modified, by Movie Gazette, November 2003

Michael Haneke has built himself a reputation for making films that are uncompromising (Benny’s Video, Funny Games, The Piano Teacher), and even the opening credits of Time of the Wolf (Le temps du loup) reflect a refusal to make any concessions to the conventions of commercial cinema. Far from being big, loud and brassy, or even elegantly classical, the film’s credits are written in squintily tiny white letters on an otherwise black screen, accompanied only by silence. This starkly minimalist opening sets exactly the right tone for a bleak, harrowing film which has no musical soundtrack at all, and involves many scenes shot in near darkness or thick mists.

Georges (Daniel Duval), Anna (Isabelle Huppert), and their children Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and Ben (Lucas Biscombe) – a typical bourgeois family – arrive at their holiday house in the woods, only to find that another family has taken up residence there. Within the space of a few minutes, Georges has been shot dead, their car and supplies seized, and Anna and the children have been forced out into the night to fend for themselves. In the darkness they find unfriendly locals, dead livestock, and a larcenous teenager (Hakim Taleb), before joining a fragile group of people holed up in a station in the hope that a train may pass through bringing salvation.

Post-apocalyptic films are a dime a dozen (e.g. the Mad Max franchise, WaterworldThe Postman), but Haneke has eschewed the sort of sensationalist violence and melodramatic maximalism which typically accompanies such films, instead opting to depict the breakdown of society in a quietly prosaic manner that rips its brand of realism right from the headlines. Anyone who has been following the unfolding anarchy in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, or any number of African trouble-spots, will immediately recognise the elements which make up Time of the Wolf: the shortages of basic provisions, the looting, the lack of justice, the death of the weak, the new groupings and leaders, and the rise of salvationist cult. Haneke’s strategy of unsettling his Western audience is to bring these motifs home.

If the film’s central image of the dissolution of normal services – people herded together at a station waiting for a train that may never arrive – will strike an uncomfortably familiar chord with anyone who has regular experience of Britain’s rail services, then Haneke’s nightmare, far from being distanced as disasters experienced abroad by some ill-defined ‘Other’, retains its proximity to ‘First World’ countries as much as to the white middle-class family at its centre.

For all its drab naturalism, Time of the Wolf never offers a specific background to what has gone wrong in society, or how such a catastrophe has taken hold so quickly – and this lack of any explanatory frame brings a certain abstraction to Time of the Wolf, so that it remains as much a modern parable as a speculative documentary. Even the lupine title is suggestive of a fable – and the moral would appear to be the intense fragility of our comfortable, capitalist world, susceptible to devastating collapse overnight. The climax around a blazing fire, that prime location of storytelling and mythmaking, can offer only the grimmest brand of optimism.

Reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s allegorical masterpieces Stalker and The Sacrifice, Haneke’s film asks what distinguishes us from beast once law and order have been stripped away, and answers somewhat equivocally with the human need for ritual, faith and myth as beacons to see through the darkness – even if it is not clear whether anything is out there. The final long take of a wooded landscape, shot in blinding daylight from a moving train, offers a bright contrast to the dark stasis that has dominated the rest of the film – but we cannot be sure where this train is going, what it is carrying, and whether it really represents the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Strap: Confronting, austere and full of Holocaust imagery (fires, trains), Haneke’s mid-apocalyptic dystopia is a vision of society stopped dead in its tracks.

© Anton Bitel